“It’s Our Movement Now”: Black Women’s Politics and the 1977 National Women’s Conference

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of ALANA Historians and ALANA Histories and WASM

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Lightning Round

Tags: African American; Politics; Women's History


In November 1977, over 20,000 women gathered in Houston to set a plan of action for the nation at the National Women’s Conference. The Conference was the U.S. women’s response to the 1975 United Nations International Women’s Year. With Rep. Patsy Mink taking the lead, Congress authorized $5 million for the conference, suggesting national support for the women’s movement. Yet as the conference date drew near, growing backlash from the right, led by Phyllis Schlafly, suggested instead that this was a moment of crisis for the women’s movement. These oppositional histories of the National Women’s Conference often overshadow the history of a different kind of crisis – one of reimagining how to build a racially inclusive movement. Indeed, as research for this project demonstrates, this Conference saw the inauguration of the phrase “Women of Color” which arguably helped to reframe racial politics in the United States for the next five decades. This panel considers how the National Women’s Conference tried to include women previously relegated to the margins by creating a catch-all venue in the “minority plank”. In response, Maxine Waters famously replied that “There is a Black perspective in all the feminist issues …”. Taking its name from the comment uttered when the adoption of the Black Women’s Agenda as a model for inclusive political organizing, was adopted as the focus for all women at the Conference, participants in this Lighting Round created on the 45th Anniversary of the Houston Conference, will each present how a specific Black woman took the 1977 Conference as a platform to give voice, speak the truth, and seek justice, while working to bring about equitable transformation in the US political landscape. These Black women include Yvonne Burke, Freddie Groomes-McLendon, Dorothy Height, Coretta Scott King, Jeffalyn Johnson, Georgia McMurray, Barbara Smith, and Johnnie Tillmon. Representing a range of political opinions, modes of political action, and responses to feminism is crucial. Instead of exploring the usual narratives of opposition that see Black feminism as emerging in response to its exclusion from the women’s movement, we offer a narrative approach grounded in individual women’s experiences and activism – how they each brought their own particular experiences and understandings of race, gender, class, and sexuality to their forms of political action both within and beyond the women’s movement.

Papers Presented

“Each One, Teach One”: Jeffalyn Johnson on the Power of Community, Representation and Education

Jeffalyn Johnson’s enduring commitment to equality for African American women and men was founded in her belief that increasing representation based on gender and race laid a foundation for a more equal society. Through her scholarship and her feminism, she produced tangible change on local, national, and international levels. As an academic, teacher, entrepreneur, artist, and activist, Johnson was a life-long educator and she lived by the mantra, “each one teach one.” She reinforced, in her students, a “sense of responsibility to help teach, develop…whoever you came into contact with.”

Presented By
Lindsay Amaral, Hunger Free America

“Bringing Depth to the Movement: Race, Gender, and (Dis)Ability in the Life of Georgia McMurray”

Photographer Diana M. Henry captured Georgia McMurray’s participation in the 1977 Women’s Conference. The photograph represents not only a significant event in the trajectory of McMurray’s activism concerning child welfare and women’s rights, but also her experience at the conference as a Black woman who was wheelchair bound at a conference that was not accessible. This paper analyzes these intersecting identities and illustrates how McMurray’s contributions to the conference broadened the women’s rights movement to include issues of race and disability.

Presented By
Crystal Lynn Webster, University of British Columbia

Johnnie Tillmon: Welfare as a Women’s Issue

Johnnie Tillmon played a central role in the rise of a national campaign to recognize the rights of welfare recipients in the United States to receive adequate income, with dignity, justice and a guarantee of democratic participation. Under her leadership, the National Welfare Rights Organization became more inclusive in the early 1970s when they recognized the interconnection of political disenfranchisement, racial discrimination, economic and educational disempowerment as well as gendered oppression. A photograph of Tillmon at the Conference reveals the connections she drew to international movements like Black Women for Wages for Housework, organized in Houston by Margaret Prescod. This form of documentation shifts our understanding of the kinds of connections drawn by activists like Tillmon to frame welfare as an issue connected to women’s work specifically.

Presented By
Laura L. Lovett, University of Pittsburgh, History and Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies

"I hope we won't turn our backs on the masses of women in Florida." Dr. Freddie Groomes-McLendon, the Florida Commission on the Status of Women, and the Struggle over the Equal Rights Amendment"

This paper discusses Dr. Freddie Groomes-McLendon’s advocacy for underrepresented communities in Florida and her leadership role in Governor Reubin Askew’s Commission on the Status of Women. Focusing on Groomes-McLendon’s work, the paper showcases how pro- and anti-ERA women’s organizations saw the participation in the 1977 Women’s Conference in Houston as a crucial steppingstone for their respective goals. Further, the critical importance of Black women’s organizing will be discussed, particularly as it relates to Black sororities. It was due to Groomes-McLendon’s membership and her leadership role in Alpha Kappa Alpha that she was able to attend the 1977 conference.

Presented By
Johanna Maria Ortner, University of Connecticut Stamford

Coretta Scott King: Icon as Activist

Coretta Scott King was selected by President Carter to be the Commissioner of the International Women’s Year Conference. As a well-recognized icon of the Civil Rights Movement, Scott King was well positioned to deliver an impactful reading of the Black women’s portion of the Minority Plank. This paper is an analysis of Scott King’s ability to strategically leverage her identity as a widow and a First Lady of Civil Rights to advance a political agenda—one that she established before she was married to Dr. Martin Luther King. This paper joins a growing body of work that acknowledges and historicizes the complex political labor that Black women activists engaged in during the mid to late 20th century. By examining Scott King’s actions before, during and after the National Women’s Conference, this patter identifies a pattern indicative of how she negotiated the heteropatriarchal politics of that time to advance the ongoing movements for equal human rights.

Presented By
Rachel Jessica Daniel, Massasoit Community College

The Costs and Crisis of Marginalization: Dorothy Height and the Fight for the Spirit of Houston

Dorothy Height, forty-year president of the National Council of Negro Women and tireless advocate for racial justice, was a leader in the 1977 National Women’s Conference minority women caucus meetings. She oversaw the collection of data on African American women’s lived experiences in work, education, politics, and home life that informed both “Black Women’s Action Plan: A Working Document for Review and Ratification,” and Plank 17 on Minority Women, which was adopted in Houston. Height should be recognized for her instrumental role in the fight for all women’s rights.

Presented By
Julie Gallagher, Penn State, Brandywine

Beyond Combahee: Barbara Smith and Black Radical Feminism

Barbara Smith played a pivotal role in securing both the Sexual Preference and the Minority Women planks at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston. Smith’s work at the conference demonstrates the importance of intersectionality as a cornerstone of Black radical feminism in the late 1970s. This presentation shows how her success at the Conference bolstered her work as a lesbian activist who organized women of color locally and internationally. It also set her on a path to revolutionize the field of feminist studies as the founder and editor of the Kitchen Table Press: Women of Color Press.

Presented By
Julie de Chantal, Georgia Southern University

Yvonne Burke and the Politics of Representation

One of the first black women elected to the House, Yvonne Burke became the first sitting member of Congress to give birth in 1973. She responded to substantial public attention to her pregnancy and childbirth by incorporating a modern, feminist, and race-conscious maternalism into her larger agenda and public persona. Burke explicitly politicized her motherhood and used it as an opportunity to advocate black women’s advancement. My comments in this lightning round will consider this and other aspects of Burke's representational politics during her time as a congresswoman in the 1970s.

Presented By
Sarah B. Rowley, DePauw University

Session Participants

Chair and Presenter: Laura L. Lovett, University of Pittsburgh, History and Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies
Laura L. Lovett is an Associate Professor of US History at the University of Pittsburgh. Her biography of Dorothy Pitman Hughes, With Her Fist Raised: Dorothy Pitman Hughes and the Transformative Power of Black Community Activism, based on oral history, has just been published by Beacon Press. Her first book, Conceiving the Future: Pronatalism, Reproduction and the Family in the United States, critically examined pronatalist eugenics policies in the US from irrigation to housing policies. She is the founding co-editor of The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth and a North American Editor of Women’s History Review.

Presenter: Lindsay Amaral, Hunger Free America
As a Leading Edge Fellow for the American Council of Learned Societies, Lindsay works with Hunger Free America as the Research Manager. She writes, researches, and collaborates on projects including the history of food stamps and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Lindsay also consults on research projects that explore Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) and the National School Lunch Program.

Lindsay began her work in nonprofits in research and development at Mississippi Action for Progress, Inc., Head Start. She later earned her doctorate in history from the University of Houston where she completed her dissertation entitled “Too Poor to Eat: A Socio-Political History of Food Stamps in the United States, 1964-1996.”

Presenter: Rachel Jessica Daniel, Massasoit Community College
Dr. Daniel is an Associate Professor of English at Massasoit Community College. She holds a PhD in English with a concentration in American Studies. Her research focuses on black women’s literature and activism. She directs the Center for Employee Enrichment and Development at Massasoit. Most recently, Dr. Daniel designed an anti-racist English Language Arts curriculum that centers literature from the African diaspora.

Presenter: Julie de Chantal, Georgia Southern University
Dr. Julie de Chantal is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Georgia Southern University. Her research focuses on African American women’s social justice activism in Boston in the long twentieth century. She is currently revising her book manuscript entitled Just Ordinary Mothers: Black Women’s Grassroots Organizing in Boston, from the Vote to the Busing Crisis. She is currently completing a special study on the presence of African American at Fort Pulaski through a National Park Service-OAH partnership.

Presenter: Julie Gallagher, Penn State, Brandywine
Julie A. Gallagher is an Associate Professor of History at Penn State Brandywine. Her publications include Reshaping Women’s History which she co-edited with Barbara Winslow and Black Women and Politics in New York City.

Presenter: Johanna Maria Ortner, University of Connecticut Stamford
Johanna Ortner is an instructor in the Department of History and the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Connecticut Stamford

Presenter: Sarah B. Rowley, DePauw University
Sarah B. Rowley is an associate professor of history at DePauw University, where she teaches courses in modern U.S. history as well as women's, gender, and sexuality studies. Her current book project centers on congresswomen to explore how gender operated in the political culture of the 1970s.

Presenter: Crystal Lynn Webster, University of British Columbia
Crystal Lynn Webster is Assistant Professor of History at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on Black women and children in early America. Her book, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North (UNC Press, 2021), is a social history of African American children and foregrounds their lives as fundamental to the process of the North’s prolonged transition from slavery to freedom. She is currently writing her second book, tentatively titled Criminalizing Freedom: African Americans and the Making of Criminal Reform in Early America. Additionally, her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Black Perspectives. Her research has been supported through grants from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.